Ethics Hero Emeritus: Stetson Kennedy (1916-2011)

And he gave his book to Superman...

Author and folklorist Stetson Kennedy, who died this week,  is another important and courageous American that most of us never heard of. Let’s try to catch up.

After a back injury kept him out of World War II, Kennedy began a lifetime career of crusading against bigotry and what he called “homegrown racial terrorists.” He served as director of fact-finding for the southeastern office of the Anti-Defamation League and as director of the Anti-Nazi League of New York.

In his 1954 book “I Rode With the Ku Klux Klan,” Kennedy wrote that he gained entrance to the Klan by posing as an encyclopedia salesman and using the name of an uncle who was a Klan member. While posing as a member, he learned many Klan secrets that he put to use undermining the organization’s reputation and support. With evidence he snatched from the Grand Dragon’s wastebasket, he gave the Internal Revenue Service what it needed to collect an outstanding $685,000 tax lien from the Klan in 1944, and he helped draft the brief used by the state of Georgia to revoke the Klan’s national corporate charter in 1947. He also testified in other Klan-related cases.

But his greatest anti-Klan stratagem was persuading the writers of the “Superman” radio show, then in search of a new set of villains to replace the defeated Nazis, to pit The Man of Steel against the Klan. The rituals and names he provided in episodes of “Clan of the Fiery Cross” were both damning and cartoonish, and the series held the Klan up to ridicule while cementing the idea that these were thus in sheets were not heroes, but enemies of “truth, justice, and the American way.” “Exposing their folklore — all their secret handshakes, passwords and how silly they were, dressing up in white sheets” was one of the strongest blows delivered to the Klan, Peggy Bulger, director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, told the Associated Press in 2007.

Once his book unmasked him as the mole inside the KKK, Kennedy had reason to fear for his life. He was also, like most prominent liberals at the time, accused of being a Communist, so he moved to Europe in the 1950s. While there he published another influential book, “The Jim Crow Guide to the U.S.A.”

After returning to the U.S., he devoted his energies to fighting poverty in Jacksonville, Florida. In his obituary, the Washington Post reports,

“When he was 90, he told the Associated Press that the Klan continued to harass him. He would pick up the telephone to hear threats. “We think about you every time we drive by your house,” the caller would tell him. He cited numerous attempts to burn his home and said that his dog had been shot.”

Kennedy spent the last decade fighting accusations that he had fabricated some of his Klan accounts and failed to credit others who had assisted him. The truth is a little murky, though it appears that Kennedy never denied that he had, in grand muckraker tradition, sensationalized the material to guarantee readers and intensify scrutiny on the Klan.

What we should remember about Stetson Kennedy is that he correctly identified sources of great evil in America, dedicated his life to fighting them, and at great risk to himself, took aggressive action against the Ku Klux Klan when it was at the peak of its power.  Of Kennedy’s efforts to bring down  the Klan, former Georgia Assistant Atty. Gen. Daniel Duke said: “Stetson didn’t do it all. But he did plenty.”

Plenty  was enough.

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